Video games. While they may seem like the bane of every parent's existence, they don't have to be—many of them offer unique learning features. And with increased requirements in schools placing unprecedented demands on children and parents, it may be time to start thinking about video games as teaching tools. The learning component of gaming can be optimized with parent involvement. That means understanding what makes a game both fun and educational.

What makes a game fun?
  • Challenge and strategy – this is the core of the game. It includes the objective, the play and the scoring. The game should provide a challenge for its players and allow them to use different strategies to gain a level or win. This is what determines the age group or skill level.
  • Element of surprise – this is the variation of the game. The element of surprise must be built into the game to provide laughter, excitement, regret or risk.
  • Replay ability – this is the ability to play the game over and over with different outcomes each time. This is measured by the ‘boring’ factor. If the child gets bored fast, the game lacks replay ability.
What makes a game educational?
  • New information – this is the educational information provided. It may be text or graphics, and is normally unknown by the age group or skill level for which the game is made.
  • Memorization – this is the part of the game that rewards good memory. If players are able to remember the new information, they can advance in the game.
  • Context and Cognition – this is the part of the game that puts the new information to use. Players win or score points by matching pairs, answering questions or problem solving.
  • Gender and Ethnic Balance – the game addresses equity issues through cooperative group play, language diversity, and character gender options

Armed with that information, let’s take a look at what the PC and console video gaming industry has to offer. Several game development companies are devoted to designing video games that help kids learn.

  • Big Fish Games. These games teach about animal habitats and the solar system, like “Wild Thornberry's Australian Wildlife Rescue” and “Chicken Invaders 2.” They also make mind bending puzzle games and challenging word group associations, such as “BeTrapped” and “WordSearch Deluxe.”
  • Broderbund. These games allow elementary students to explore spooky museums and learn about bugs with “Scooby-Doo in The Glowing Bug-Man,” or follow the real life journey of the Oregon Trail. Middle and high school students can explore the features of shapes and solids and the relationship between length, perimeter, area and volume with “Mighty Math's Cosmic Geometry.”
  • Educational Insights – This company makes games that focus on mathematics, acting as tutors in basic skills from addition and subtraction, to decimals and percentages.

But learning doesn't just come from the video games that are designed specifically for education; there are some great learning experiences among popular entertainment video games, too. The most effective teaching video game genres are management, role-playing, and strategy. Each of these types of games offers opportunities to develop new learning strategies, problem solving, and real life skills, with built-in skill leveling and good gender balance options.

  • Management games are based on creating a business in a simulated environment. The Zoo, Railroad and Amusement Park Tycoon series involve players in activities to raise funds for daily repairs and to pay workers. This requires the use of critical thinking and math skills. Management games have elements that help teach science, social studies and language arts. Most management games are rated “E” for everyone.
  • Role-playing games are based on exploration and the completion of quests. Role-play games such as “Tomb Raider” and “Half Life” require reading dialogue and directions, inventory and maps. There may be elements of fighting, but in many instances the player must decide whether fighting, or avoiding the fight, is the best choice. Online versions of role-playing games include the extremely popular “World of Warcraft,” and long running “EverQuest” series. This genre is suitable for teens.
  • Strategy games feature an array of activities, from building historical vehicles to creating the history of new worlds or replaying the history of our own. These include games like “Model Trains 3D”, Microsoft's “Flight Simulator X,” “Empire Earth,” and “Age of Empires.” Players experiment and discover how things work, or don't work, as they set goals and labor to achieve them. Strategy games involve many of the same skills used in today's science exploration. They are suitable for most children 10 and older.

For parents who are wary of just handing over the console carte-blanch, there are ways you can get involved to make sure your child is getting the most out of the learning game experience.

  • Play games with your child. Be available during game time. Today’s online game play offers the chance to create and play as a family clan, regardless of where family members are physically located.
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. Be aware of Electronic Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings found on the front of video game boxes. Movie ratings and ESRB ratings are quite similar. If your child is allowed to view only “G” rated movies then an ESRB rating of “E” will be appropriate. An ESRB “T” game rating is the equivalent of “PG-13” movie ratings, and an “M” video game rating indicates an audience level of 17 years and older.
  • Allow your child to show and tell about their gaming experience. Character journaling is also a good way to improve creative writing skills. Have your older child keep a journal from the game character’s perspective.
  • Ask questions about the gaming experience, especially when using entertainment video games. Questions can be generic or game specific. For example: Do any of the characters in this game remind you of any real life heroes? What are your favorite Zoo Tycoon animals, and what do you think they need to survive in real life?
  • Avoid the pitfall of the video game becoming a babysitter by locating the gaming PC or console system in a family room, rather than in the isolation of a child’s room.

Whether card game, board game, PC or console video game, the key ingredient for success is parent involvement, and regardless of the delivery method, the main focus of learning games is that they should be both fun and educational. Incorporate fun into daily learning activities by using games, and you will be surprised at how much kids learn!